PLAYA VISTA, Calif.--Electronic Arts is betting big that it can make more money by giving its games away.
The company plans to offer Real Racing 3, its marquee mobile racing game, for free to iOS and Android customers on February 28. That marks a dramatic shift for the franchise, which previously charged a hefty amount for the console-quality game. Real Racing 2 for the iPhone still costs $4.99.
The change underscores a move toward a business known in the mobile industry as "freemium," or games that are freely offered but have the option of in-game purchases for power-ups, additional levels, or other special perks. That EA would turn Real Racing 3, one of its potential blockbuster mobile titles, into a free game illustrates the weight that the company is putting behind this model.
"We looked at it closely, and the market was demanding games with this model," Nick Earl, general manager of EA's All Play label, which includes mobile and social games, said in an interview with CNET. "It's an opportunity to get it in front of far more people. "
With mobile representing a future growth opportunity for EA, Earl said, the company is committed to freemium as "the default model." The company has already seen success in the arena with The Simpsons: Tapped Out, which remains a top revenue-generating game through in-app purchases.
Earl said Real Racing 3 stands in the same league as The Simpsons, Fifa, and Bejeweled, which are important franchises for EA. As a result, he said, it was important to remove barriers such as price to get as many people as possible playing the game.
As a testament to just how important Real Racing 3 is, EA held a small press event last week to show off the game at its Los Angeles studio. But rather than the usual tech, gaming, or consumer press, the dozen or so journalists there covered the entertainment industry and were largely more interested in special host and actor Donald Faison than the game itself.
The journalists flanked one side of a large, wooden circular table. On the table sat small jars filled with blue and white stones, with pairs of checkered flags sticking out. Opposite the media were Faison and Nick Rish, vice president of publishing for EA. In one corner was a well-stocked bar set up for the event, which some had already begun to take advantage of late in the morning.
Rather than focus on the game, Rish and Faison led the journalists around the facilities. EA Los Angeles is a hub for mobile games and is where The Simpsons is developed. While other studios around the world develop mobile games, many are published in EA Los Angeles. The company's executive headquarters, meanwhile, are based in Redwood City, Calif., near San Francisco.
Rish and Faison then engaged in an unusual Q&A session -- one in which the journalists watched the two interact. Faison would later meet with the journalists to discuss his recent projects, including the sequel to the comic book film "Kick-Ass."
Faison, an affable, outgoing person, said he considers himself a gamer, defining one as "someone with a fetish for gaming." While EA paid for Faison's time, he wasn't a complete shill for the company's games, noting that he enjoys Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja, largely with his children.
One of the complaints that he shared about mobile games, and racing in particular, was that the graphics weren't up to par and that the controls were often awkward. Having played with Real Racing 3 for a few weeks, he said the game addresses some of those concerns.
But rather than rely on a celebrity endorser, I got my hands on the game. Real Racing 3 certainly looks good, with a polygon count that compares to PlayStation 3 games. The developer also promised more cars to choose from, as well as more vehicles on the track at once.
While the physics have supposedly changed, the game itself didn't feel that different from Real Racing 2. Anyone familiar with that game should feel right at home with the sequel.
The biggest new feature is called "Time-Shifted Multiplayer." After finishing a race, you can upload the run to EA's servers, and friends in your social network can race against a ghost version of your car, running the same route and time that you did. Rather than faceless AI competitors, you populate a race with your friends. It's an intriguing concept that could keep players stuck on the game.
The other difference has to do with the freemium aspect of the game. EA has promised that no part of the game is locked out for players who don't choose to spend money. But players who want to ante up can receive cars and access to different racetracks faster.
In addition, damage actually matters in this game, and players will have to wait awhile to repair their cars before the next race. Or, they can take virtual money earned from the race or purchased with real money and speed up the repairs.
"The monetization had to be unaggressive as opposed to overly harsh and tight," Earl said. "For those spending hours at the game, they will opt to spend a little money on the game. We think that's a fair exchange."
Overall, it's a worthy successor and a game that's a no-brainer to try out because it's free.
"We feel like it will do well and turn heads," Earl said. "There's a potential viral (factor) with a game that looks this good."